NBA Position Rankings: Top 15 Centers for Season's 2nd Half
This one's for the NBA's best behemoths.
Combing through the league's top centers is a somewhat nostalgic process. Every other position has undergone a noticeable facelift. Players are smaller, longer or just built differently. The 5 spot hasn't encountered such a drastic shift.
Make no mistake, the position has been impacted by the Association's small-ball uprising. But pocket-sized centers are deployed in deliberate, measured doses. They don't actually qualify as 5s. They dabble in the responsibilities.
Skill sets have evolved to include more ball-handling, rangy jumpers and mobility, but the desired physical profile of an NBA center hasn't otherwise changed: Size runs the table here.
Adam Fromal and I have taken on the task of ranking the best of these big men. You'll be free to hoot and holler soon, but first, let's parse the ground rules.
As we did for the point guard, shooting guard, small forward and power forward rankings, we'll evaluate centers as if we're acquiring them for the rest of the 2017-18 season while assuming health. Players will only be deemed ineligible due to injuries if they're not expected to play again this year. (You're welcome, Rudy Gobert.)
Cleaning the Glass' extensive position data will be used to determine who qualifies as a 5. Starting-lineup composition won't matter. We've instead emphasized total volume. So don't freak out when you see LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Love making cameos. They're right where they're supposed to be.
15-11: Turner, Gasol, Jordan, Whiteside, Adams
15. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.5 steals, 2.2 blocks, 49.0 percent shooting
Breakouts from Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis, along with a more democratic approach from the Indiana Pacers overall, have prevented Myles Turner from assuming a high-end offensive role. He's posting a career-high usage rate by only a slim margin and isn't afforded freelance touches on a much larger scale.
But Turner is still one of the most economical performers at his position. He's a quality screener and looks mildly more comfortable when rolling and popping off those picks. He makes up for his lack of imposition at the rim by working (fairly) well when pulled outside the paint. He needs to boost his three-point clip (33 percent) but still preserves Indy's spacing by canning more than 50 percent of his long twos.
Yes, Turner has ceded ground to the other star-billed bigs from that famed 2015 draft class. The Paul George trade may have curtailed his trajectory rather than amplified it, and the Pacers must make some tough decisions up front knowing Sabonis is best suited at the 5. But Turner, still just 21, continues to offer glimpses of almost everything teams want from today's centers.
14. Pau Gasol, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 10.5 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.3 steals, 1.0 blocks, 46.2 percent shooting
Pau Gasol's status is most definitely specific to the San Antonio Spurs being the San Antonio Spurs. They're uniquely built to control the pace, accentuate his half-court offense and use him as stock-still rim protector. Put him in on another team—perhaps any other team—and he won't be the same hyper-efficient weapon he is now.
Consider this blurb our "We don't care" dance. Gasol is 37 and reworked his offensive game to include heftier amounts of three-point shooting (career-high 2.0 attempts) to solidify his value. And perfecting verticality around the rim, even from comfy gridlock stances, is a skill. He won't help the Spurs against the Golden State Warriors, but he's sure as heck a regular-season asset.
13. Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.8 steals, 1.8 blocks, 55.6 percent shooting
Speaking candidly, Hassan Whiteside could fall higher or lower. Many of the Miami Heat's top offensive lineups don't include him. Throwing it to him in the post is an iffy proposition on his best nights, and head coach Erik Spoelstra has thus far proved unable to coax more playmaking out of him on handoffs or pick-and-rolls.
On the flip side, Whiteside is an active deterrent. He knows how to use his length in space, and his rim protection is not bogged down by volume. He's one of three everyday players limiting opponents to sub-54 percent clips around the basket while contesting five or more of those looks per game. His company: Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis.
What do we do with a player so entrenched in seesaw practices? Well, um, this.
12. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.8 points, 14.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.0 blocks, 66.1 percent shooting
DeAndre Jordan misses Chris Paul. He's not finishing out of the pick-and-roll nearly as often this season, and his presence around the rim has been compromised by the Los Angeles Clippers' questionable cast of perimeter defenders.
Still, Jordan ranks 12th in the entire league on the win-share ladder and has found something close to a happy medium when sharing the floor with Blake Griffin and Milos Teodosic. And given how many other bigs ebb and flow with those they're surrounded by, Jordan remains a premier option at center.
11. Steven Adams, Oklahoma City Thunder
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 0.9 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.1 blocks, 63.4 percent shooting
Dirty-work guru Steven Adams is an uncelebrated—albeit not underpaid—heartbeat for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He's shooting better than 65 percent out of the pick-and-roll and ranks fourth among all centers in screen assists. His rim protection is spotty, and he ducks defensive rebounds by design, but he stamps out enemy rim-runners.
Adams can also hold his own when trundling into space. He forces turnovers almost 10 percent of the time when defending isolations—fifth best among every player to guard 60 or more one-on-one situations. It should come as minimal surprise that NBA Math's TPA rates him as Oklahoma City's second-most valuable player, behind only Russell Westbrook.
10. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.8 blocks, 66.8 percent shooting
Other players can replicate Clint Capela's hyper-specific role, but few will be content to set screens, finish lobs and wrangle defensive rebounds without the promise of supplementary post touches. Capela doesn't subject the Houston Rockets to—or, more accurately, extort them with—usage demands.
More than 80 percent of his made baskets come off assists, and he's used fewer than 20 post-up possessions all year. Only Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan are notching higher defensive rebounding rates. And despite his spindly frame, Capela is flashing sturdier position against back-to-the-basket scorers while anchoring pleasantly average units on the less glamorous side when playing next to Ryan Anderson.
Translating this (clear) value across the league is nevertheless difficult. Capela wouldn't guarantee the same returns on a different team.
Always playing beside James Harden or Chris Paul is its own safety net. He is dependent on the space they forge. And though this can be said for many other centers, Capela isn't charged with as much responsibility at either end.
Houston remains hesitant to lean on him for protracted stretches. He's already set a career high in 30-minute outings, but his court time still heavily hinges on matchups and conditioning.
The Rockets advertise Capela as irreplaceable—and, to them, he just might be. But he has a (tiny) ways to go before he's viewed in the same breadth as the starriest bigs.
9. Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 14.6 points, 15.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.3 blocks, 54.1 percent shooting
We wanted, and tried, to place Andre Drummond even higher. We really did. His offensive 180 incited many, many feels.
Less than 10 percent of Drummond's possessions have come as post-ups this year, compared to 27.5 in 2016-17. He's still not a reliable scorer when working with his back to the basket, but he's a trustworthy decision-maker.
Last year, Drummond passed on just over 15 percent of his post touches. This season, on significantly more catches, he's deferring on nearly 40 percent of those possessions while more than doubling his assist rate. He's averaging more dimes per 36 minutes than Marc Gasol.
Slotting him any higher, though, would ignore his defensive inconsistency. He's yet to showcase DeAndre Jordan-level switchability, and his rotations around the rim are suspect. Opponents shoot close to 60 percent when he challenges them at the basket—a so-so mark at best—and the Detroit Pistons are allowing more points per 100 possessions with him on the court for a second consecutive season.
This doesn't aim to paint Drummond as a sieve or defensive malcontent. The Pistons have all kinds of things wrong with their rotation—starting with each of their seven most-used lineups being net negatives. Drummond is not the root of all that plagues them.
He is, however, a mainstay for a team with waxing and waning defensive efforts.
8. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 11.6 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.3 blocks, 59.8 percent shooting
From the offseason's second-best center to...to...to this?
Rudy Gobert is not entirely at fault for his downswing. Multiple knee injuries have limited his availability, and everyone on the Utah Jazz is reeling from the offensive drop-off incurred from the departures of Gordon Hayward and George Hill.
Ricky Rubio's fast-and-furious demise only casts more fog over Gobert's stock. Utah scores like the league's worst offense when these two share the court, and plucking out that noise is imperative to giving Gobert a fair shake.
Then again, the Jazz's offensive descent serves as a crash course in the Stifle Tower's limitations. He is neither a bail-out option in the post nor immune to downgrades at the point guard position. Utah is far more potent when he plays without Rubio but hardly elite.
It doesn't matter whether Joe Ingles or Donovan Mitchell is taking the ball-handler reins; Gobert has seen his offensive impact fracture and fade amid this new world order, exposing raw reliance that cannot be stricken from the conversation.
On the bright side, this reality check negates nothing about his defense. Gobert is impenetrable near the rim when he's not pirouetting around the perimeter, and the Jazz's stopping power noticeably tumbles when Derrick Favors, Jonas Jerebko and Ekpe Udoh pinch hit at center.
Traditional bigs aren't the most sought-after building blocks in today's playmaker-obsessed Association, but Gobert's absence is the mortal blow that strips Utah of its identity. And that says a lot.
7. Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 19.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.4 blocks, 46.2 percent shooting
A memo to the positional police: Yes, Kevin Love qualifies as a center. Most of the Cleveland Cavaliers' starting lineups feature him at the 5, and more than 86 percent of his possessions have come as the primary big, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Sticking Love in the middle quickly became a non-negotiable aspect of life. Tristan Thompson missed substantial time with a left calf injury, and the offseason additions of Jae Crowder, Jeff Green and Dwyane Wade have necessitated fewer dual-big lineups.
But Love-at-the-5 arrangements are still more about function than convenience. He is a matchup nightmare for plodding bigs unaccustomed to contesting three-point deadeyes or pick-and-pop whizzes, and defenses are more willing to award him breathing room than abandon the paint when LeBron James is on the court.
Immersing himself in a more complementary role has chipped away at some of Love's glitziest volume. He gets touches in the post, where he's averaging a stout 0.99 points per possession, but has seen his assist rate shrink. He's turning in the best true shooting percentage of his career yet averaging under 30 minutes per game for the first time since his sophomore march.
Love would have an argument for more favorable placement if he provided any defensive value. But the Cavaliers are more porous with him in the middle, completely counteracting the intended offensive boon.
Things keep devolving when Love plays with Thompson. Cleveland is getting pummeled by more than 12 points per 100 possessions with both bigs in the game—an overarching issue that crimps both Love's ranking and his team's championship chances.
6. LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 22.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.5 steals, 1.1 blocks, 49.5 percent shooting
LaMarcus Aldridge's stock is on the rise, in his age-32 season, all because he asked to be traded from San Antonio over the offseason. As head coach Gregg Popovich recently said of Aldridge's request, per ESPN.com's Michael C. Wright:
"So we had some dinners and meetings and laughed. I was very candid with him. I told him, 'I'd be happy to trade you. You get me a talent like Kevin Durant, and I'll drive you to the airport. I'll pack your bags. And I will drive you there, get you on the plane, and get you seated.' He laughed, you know, that kind of thing.
"I said, 'But short of that, I'm your best buddy because you're here for another year, and you ain't going nowhere. Because we're not gonna get for you talent-wise what we would want. So let's figure this thing out.' And we did. That's what we came to."
Laughter—and perhaps a good pinot noir—really is the best medicine. The Spurs own a top-six record despite playing most of the year without Kawhi Leonard. And they don't get here, inside striking distance of a No. 2 postseason seed, without Aldridge playing some of his best basketball ever.
He has never averaged more points per 36 minutes and is providing above-average rim protection while almost evenly splitting time between the center (55 percent) and power forward (45 percent) positions, per Cleaning the Glass.
Subsisting on difficult fadeaways should spell offensive doom, but it works for both Aldridge and the Spurs. He's shooting almost 47 percent on all turnaround jumpers, and San Antonio's offensive rating falls by nearly seven points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench.
Lifelines for championship contenders (non-Warriors division) aren't created by accident. Aldridge is earning his keep.
5. Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 20.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.9 blocks, 54.0 percent shooting
Karl-Anthony Towns is doing some stuff since his passive six-shot performance in a Dec. 4 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. He's averaging over 20 points and three assists while putting down more than 46 percent of his long balls and displaying more defensive engagement.
This heightened commitment on defense has been especially crucial to the Minnesota Timberwolves playing their way into the Western Conference's No. 3 seed. They were getting creamed with Towns on the floor after his first 25 appearances.
His rotations around the basket were undisciplined or, oftentimes, nonexistent. He did weird things with his hands that culminated in fouls or uncontested looks around the hoop. And he flittered aimlessly about the paint, haplessly gravitating toward the ball or watching chunks of possessions in a stationary stance without regard for his man.
Towns should not be misidentified as a lockdown defender. Opponents are shooting almost 63 percent against him at the rim during this stretch. But he's making crisper rotations, gluing himself to post scorers and keeping his head on more of a swivel.
Minnesota is allowing fewer than 102 points per 100 possessions through this quasi-surge when Towns takes the court—tantamount to a top-three defensive rating, and a mark surpassed only by Tyus Jones. Sustainability remains a question mark given Towns' previous transgressions, but he appears to have turned a climactic corner in his development.
4. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.7 blocks, 48.2 percent shooting
After capturing the hearts of knee-jerk enthusiasts and stat geeks everywhere last year, Nikola Jokic has flown under the radar for much of this season.
A prolonged fight with his sprained left ankle accounts for some of the disenchantment. Swelling indifference, too. The Denver Nuggets' inability to stave off fringe-lottery status takes care of the rest.
Look closer, and Jokic's performance stands the test of stardom. He's the same offensive visionary, even with rival teams gumming up Denver's cutting lanes, and his defensive activity is on the come-up. And he has the kitchen-sink cachet to prove it.
Check out where Jokic places among all bigs (4s and 5s) in some of the most important catch-all metrics:
These ranks don't align with last year's finishes, but they're stellar marks. And Jokic is arguably more appealing now that the Nuggets can survive on defense with him in the middle. He still retreats when guarding in space and doesn't have the quickest lateral reflexes, but his positioning is better overall.
Adding Paul Millsap has of course helped. But he hasn't played since mid-November following wrist surgery. The Nuggets have a close-to-average defensive rating when Jokic works without him—it has slipped of late—and they enjoy stingier returns when he sets up shop with Trey Lyles.
Moral of the story: Denver is a violent roller coaster, but Jokic retains his best-player-on-a-contender ceiling.
3. Al Horford, Boston Celtics
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 13.4 points, 7.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks, 51.9 percent shooting
Points-per-game groupies aren't going to be happy. And so be it.
Al Horford is too damn instrumental to the Boston Celtics' season-long tear to dwell any lower. They have a comfortable hold on the Eastern Conference's best record, deploy the league's top defense and sport a top-three crunch-time offense—and he's essential to it all.
Smarty pantses see a clever and selfless facilitator rather than a reluctant scorer. Horford sets and slips screens as well as anyone, and his 40-plus percent shooting from deep vaults his passing to a new level. He is equal parts dangerous from inert states on the block and off-the-bounce attacks, with more potential assists to his name than Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Boston's defensive schemes are founded largely off Horford's own versatility. He doesn't have a problem picking up ball-handlers above the break and seldom gets beat off the dribble by fellow unicorns. If he does, he has the moxie to party-crash plays from behind.
Stocking the roster with like-sized wings drums up the Celtics' curb appeal against the most high-powered offenses, but Horford, more so than anyone, is a conduit between every possible identity. He works as a linchpin in the middle yet is switchable enough for extended burn beside a lumbering big like Aron Baynes.
Kyrie Irving is Boston's primary offensive maestro—the author for most of its crunch-time heroics. But Horford is the more comprehensive safety valve. The Celtics' splits with only one star in tow say it all. They're outscoring opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions when Horford runs without Irving, compared to a sound, yet inferior plus-3.4 when the point guard plays on his own.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 23.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 2.0 blocks, 48.4 percent shooting
Joel Embiid is not perfect—far from it, in fact.
He remains an injury risk, someone the Philadelphia 76ers cannot count on for 70 games or in both nights of a back-to-back. He is more than occasionally sloppy with the ball; his turnover rate on post-ups is still too high, and he coughs up possession on nearly 13 percent of his drives—the third-worst mark among more than 175 players to appear in at least 10 games.
Though Embiid's assist totals are solid for a big man, he suffers from frequent tunnel vision on the block and off the dribble. His three-point accuracy has also fallen below 30 percent despite Philly's sharper spacing.
This stuff matters. Yet, on the flip side, it kind of doesn't. Embiid transcends his shortcomings, both those in and beyond his control, by carrying the Sixers. As Rob Mahoney wrote for SI.com:
"Functionally replacing a player like Embiid is impossible, given that no one in basketball is like him. One could make a reasonable case that his defensive impact is the most profound in the league. Veteran bigs commonly dupe themselves in his vicinity, rushing or faking their way out of their usual rhythms based on the twitch of Embiid's shadow. All the while, Embiid functions as a gigantic skill player, riding technique to a smooth 24 and 10. Even the best reserves can't come close to operating—much less producing—in any similar way."
Injuries to Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard, along with Draymond Green's (microscopic) declivity, might render Embiid the Defensive Player of the Year favorite. And his intermittent negligence at the offensive end is excused by his volume. He owns one of the NBA's three highest usage rates and has cycled through more post-ups (326) than 19 of the league's teams.
What's more, through everything, Embiid is all that stands between the Sixers and irrelevance. Most telling: Their other four starters go from a plus-17.6 per 100 possessions playing with him to a minus-9.1 when he steps off the floor.
1. DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Per-Game Stats: 25.5 points, 12.6 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 1.6 blocks, 47.4 percent shooting
DeMarcus Cousins has not neutralized all—or even any—of the red flags that followed him to the New Orleans Pelicans.
His defensive interest fluctuates. He spends too much time complaining about missed calls. He commits turnovers on more than 20 percent of his post-ups—fifth-worst share among all players to use 50 or more such possessions. The Pelicans' point differential when he lines up without Anthony Davis is damning.
Like Embiid, though, Cousins earns something close to a pass by way of volume. He, too, is recording a top-five usage rate, and a certain level of sloppiness is incumbent upon that workload.
No other big fills up the box score like Cousins. He blends brute force and explosion with mobility and finesse in a way we haven't quite seen. A 6'11", 270-pound leviathan should not be able to set up above the break, pump-fake those closing out on him and attack the basket with the routineness of a guard.
New Orleans has Cousins initiating the occasional pick-and-roll, and he's averaging more drives than starting floor generals Stephen Curry and Kyle Lowry. His solo struggles, without Davis, are blown out of proportion. The Pelicans score like a top-five offense during those stints, and they're a net plus when his Davis-less minutes come without Rajon Rondo.
Cousins wouldn't hold off a more durable version of Embiid. The Sixers tower is, by all appearances, coming for the NBA's best-center pedestal. Right now, the honor stays with Cousins, one of the most dominant players at his position and in the league—flaws, doubts, irreconcilable question marks and all.